Every summer my school offers a summer camp program. The most exciting part of my camp group (six to eight year olds) is the ‘play performance’. It didn’t start that way at all. Camp is camp, and that means having a real experience of outdoors, swimming, nature activities, arts and crafts, and camp songs. Play performances seemed to evolve on their own.
Our camp has four themes. When we are Kings and Queens, my older group is the ‘Mighty Mighty Dragons’. When we are The Wild West, my group is the ‘Mighty Mighty Mustangs’. We’re Stingrays and Cheetahs for the Safari and Ocean units, always ‘Mighty Mighty’, of course.
It started with the Wild West years ago. I couldn’t help but notice that the children began to do things on their own. They built a tower for our mustang puppet, made up songs, and pretended to be different characters out west. This was emergent curriculum, children so ready to act out something. That ‘something’ turned out to be an incredible play performance. I can’t liken it to the success of building a difficult block structure, or learning to read, or painting the best piece of art; this play had that same level of accomplishment yet much more, because it involved the joint efforts of all the children. That’s collaboration. Pretty incredible for six and seven year olds.
Here’s where it gets remarkable; the children planned everything from script to costumes to parts. I only guided and encouraged. Well, I added the excitement of surprise by sneaking the children into the storage room to find a prop or a part for a costume. We did this crawling the hallway and dodging all the other groups, James Bond style. A scarf became a dress, and poster board was cut into cowboy chaps and a doorway. The play became a special secret, even to parents. The camp director ‘got it’ and became a spy. Of course all of this empowered the children.
Kevin was shy, yet he seemed to like being part of the play. When we sneaked into the storage room to look for items, he wanted to find something for his dog costume. He found a piece of brown card stock paper and was eager to cut it out. I saw that he was cutting out something tiny, a triangle to be exact. “That’s my tail”, he said. I asked what else he needed for a costume. “Nothing”, he said. When we walked out on stage, he stood so proud and tall. He loved his costume. No one else could even see it, but that didn’t matter. Kevin knew it was there- it was his. He walked out onto that stage with tall shoulders. In his performance he was no longer the shy boy.
Owen often asked when his Mom would pick him up or how many hours there were in camp. Swimming wasn’t his favorite activity, especially with the big water slide and cold water. He didn’t have a large circle of friends at camp. Yet when the children planned the play, he wanted to be ‘head of the cheetah family’. There are six days in a camp session, and by day four he cried. Day five was too much, and at drop-off Mom just took him home. Oh, we had talked about the play on and off, and he really wanted to do it. We even talked about his tall orange socks and how they would be a perfect cheetah costume for the play. Day six, the last day of camp and ‘play day’ arrived. Owen came to camp, a little unsure. He was a star in the play! Boy, did he pull it off with a huge smile.
I have learned along the way not to assign parts or give costumes or even have a say in the play. Children always come up with something amazing and far more interesting than I could. I never underestimate young children. And, I always support their ideas. That’s why our play performances are incredible. When children are empowered and encouraged to do something on their own, they rise to the occasion.